Ok, so we kind of stayed in Cusco a lot longer than initially planned – 12 nights to be exact. We wanted to stay in one place for Christmas and New Year’s Eve and we’d read that Cusco is a good place for both. We did pop over to the town of Ollantaytambo to do Macchu Picchu although that’s a post in itself.
The flight from Lima to Cusco (with StarPeru; c. $100 each) was just over an hour (or 22 hours on a bus so am…that was an easy decision) and a taxi from the airport to the centre (to yet another Plaza de Armas) was S/.15. We stayed at Casa Suecia II for the majority of our time here; a nice hostel with rooms surrounding a courtyard (although no kitchen) for S/.70 a night. Most of our days were spent breakfasting at the very popular café, Jack’s, which had the most delicious porridge with apple and cinnamon compote. I shall never forget it! There was always a queue for Jack’s so if you’re going just pray it’s not the afternoon when the heavy downpours start. It rained every single afternoon in Cusco, and not just a small downpour – I’m talking Irish-style; flying in your face from all directions. There was also some seriously heavy hail that bloody hurts when it hits you! The Plaza de Armas is definitely the focal point of local life. It’s flanked by the cathedral on one side and another church, La Compañía de Jesús on the other. Lovely colonial buildings with wooden balconies overlook the green plaza too. Cusco takes some getting used to altitude-wise; it’s 3,400 metres from sea level and it’s so difficult getting your breath back here if you exert yourself (or just generally take a 5 minute stroll). A lot of hotels provide oxygen tanks to help with altitude sickness but you definitely need a few days taking it easy to acclimatise properly.
You need to look in every doorway in Cusco as there are lots of tiny alleyways leading to huge courtyards filled to the brim with multicoloured Peruvian handicrafts. We’re talking woolly llama key-rings, art, embroidered shoes and boots, blankets, cushions, scarves and hats. Anything you can fix up with some coloured thread really. Everybody around Cusco wears these woolly sweaters that are sold in pretty much each building you pass. John doesn’t care much for them but I obviously needed something with some llamas on it. I picked up a jumper from the most lovely (read: sales savvy) girl called Gabriela whose store is just on the right after a 12 cornered stone (yep) on an Incan path up the side of the cathedral (paid S/.25). Speaking of the cathedral, you can visit for free every morning from 6am – 10am although there are services going on then so you’d really need to join in so as to not be disrespectful.
Christmas in Cusco
We spent 3 days over Christmas in the oh so lovely Andenes del Cielo hotel; in an apartment on the top floor with a fireplace and a guitar for John ($130 a night). Blissful and the best shower we’ve had in a South America so far. Happily, we got a number of films in over Christmas. Hadn’t seen ‘Its a Wonderful Life’ before but it was great. Obviously ‘The Holiday’ too. I also have to admit I watched Donald Duck as Scrooge on the Disney channel…
Christmas Eve was very special in Cusco. There’s a famous market called Santurantikuy all day Christmas Eve in the Plaza de Armas selling souvenirs, Christmas decorations, candles and food. It’s jam-packed and definitely worth a wander around. At midnight on Christmas Eve the entire city just lights up with fireworks. It was insane and went on for over an hour and there were still huge cracks going off all Christmas Day. We ended up having Christmas dinner in Jack’s with all the other gringos. Why change something that works? Oddly, lots of shops were open so it didn’t feel like a usual Christmas Day. Good different though.
New Year’s in Cusco
Ok, we’re talking party central – mania. From early evening people tie yellow balloons to the outside of their buildings. The whole place is awash with balloons and I believe you’re supposed to wear yellow too. Apparently at midnight Peruvian families eat 12 grapes – I guess for the next 12 months. At midnight the fireworks start again. I think these people are OBSESSED WITH FIRE. Everybody has to run around the plaza four times and make a wish each time; we managed one…let’s just say crowd control isn’t something they’re too bothered about here – I saw a young chap throw a firecracker at one of the three policemen on the scene (yes, three) and he didn’t even flinch. Tough dude.
We checked out a couple of bars in Cusco too. The best was probably KM0 up the hill in the San Blas district. They had great live music every night. It’s a tiny little spot with a great atmosphere. Paddy’s Irish Bar, apparently the highest Irish owned bar in the world, was also frequented. We didn’t once observe an Irish person behind this bar – just a Peruvian family so I’m not sure how accurate their claim to fame is. They serve huge Irish breakfasts here; although the sausages just tasted like coriander/washing up liquid – no lovely Denny sausages here. Sigh. The Museo del Pisco (pisco is a grape spirit) is definitely worth a visit. It’s a bar that also sells food and is packed to the rafters with different types of pisco for the huge cocktail list. Norton Rats Tavern on the Plaza de Armas (close to Starbucks) wasn’t a bad spot either. Darts, pool table and a balcony overlooking the plaza make to a nice stop. They also sell this beer called Delirium Tremens (I believe voted best in the world) so obviously himself needed to get some of that action.
In a not so alcohol driven spot, Patricia Yep (just a few buildings up from Jack’s) does really comforting hot chocolates (she even has the ingredients in takeaway glass jars so you can make them at home) and delicious truffles in all kinds of flavours; mint, dark, quinoa…just yum.
We found a great soup place nearing the end of our visit, Mr. Soup. Delicious spinach, tomato amd pumpkin soups were had here for S/.16. Super friendly owner and you get seeded bread and croutons with your soup. Perfect spot to hide out from Cusco’s damp weather. Randomly, it felt like we were eating in a spot on the Japanese ski-slopes – all timber, sliding doors and benches.
There’s also a family run place called Bodega 138 which needs to be talked about. I didn’t have a pizza here but John swears they serve up some of the tastiest pizzas he’s had…and he’s had a few. Their huge craft beer selection might have something to do with his opinion here though.
The San Blas area is definitely worth a walk around. It’s a short walk from the Plaza de Armas (uphill) but there’s a lovely main square surrounded by handicraft stores and some cafés. The Meeting Place is a lovely café up here. It’s run by volunteers which is great – the waffles here are the size of your head and they have a fantastic selection of teas. It closes at 4pm so you gotta get in early! La Boheme Creperia around this area was tasty too although always very crowded so not really somewhere you can relax with your wifi.
You can walk up from San Blas to the Christo Blanco statue which overlooks the city for some stunning vistas. It’s free to walk up here and takes about 40 minutes to climb. I have to be honest; I’m kind of disliking the Incas for all the damn steps they put everywhere. There’s a huge population of feral dogs up here so you need to be very careful. The statue is next to some Incan ruins, Sachayswamán (which John let me know is pronounced like ‘sexy woman’. Fun fact!). It’s S/.70 to get into these ruins but we were content to see them from the statue.
We have accumulated a few souvenirs so far on our trip so decided to post some things home to Ireland – 4.5kg worh of stuff to be exact. We walked way down the Avenida Sol street (about 25 minutes from the Plaza de Armas) to Serpost where we had our stuff packed up in a little office for S/.10 and then posted for S/.219 (about $90 – so not cheap). Staff were very friendly and you’ll need your passport details here. Fingers crossed the stuff gets home…
Jack’s had this amazing crockery with llamas painted on it that I just had to have and send home. I’m nesting! It’s by a local artist called Jatum Maqui – love her stuff! We just picked up 4 cups and saucers but you could get an entire set (I believe with 6 of everything) for S/.170.
There’s a huge artisanal market across from the post office which is really good. You could easily while away a few hours looking through the stalls. There’s a lovely café just up from here on Avenida el Sol called La Valeriana; very pretty decor and a nice place to kick back for a while.
The San Pedro Market up beyond Cusco’s Plaza de San Francisco (which houses another church) is a great spot to refuel. There’s a plethora of stalls selling all kinds of fruit juices for S/.5 – with two refills. So cheap! You can’t miss these stalls – all the sellers will shake their menus in your face the millisecond they see you! San Pedro is more of a food market than anything else; you could get your lunch here for pittance. There are 2 supermarkets just adjacent to the market; Orion and Mega if you’re self-catering. There’s also a brand new Orion supermarket right next door to the renowned Wild Rover party hostel (on Calle Matara). Much better (and cleaner) than the one near San Pedro.
All in all, we loved Cusco. It’s beautiful, there are plenty of cobblestoned alleyways to keep you busy, lots of museums (although we abstained) and some of the tastiest food we’ve had in South America. I’d definitely recommend a holiday to Cusco on its own…although you’re so close to Macchu Picchu it’d be a shame not to fit that in…
Next stop: Ollantaytambo in Perú’s Sacred Valley and Macchu Picchu